Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Thomas Wise of Hillbank, 1780s 

Sir Henry Raeburn PRSA (1756-1823)

Portrait of Thomas Wise of Hillbank, 1780s, Sir Henry Raeburn PRSA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 in (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
This portrait is typical of the innovatively fresh, modern style that made Raeburn one of Britain’s most celebrated artists, and in representing a Scottish sitter demonstrates his achievement in recording the protagonists of an Edinburgh became known to many as the ‘Athens of the North.’ It is also of interest as one of relatively few surviving portraits from Raeburn’s early career and artistic evolution, for oth the sitter’s likely age, and the style of the cravat and coat suggest a date of the mid-late 1780s.

The lack of a significant body of early work by Raeburn is surprising, given that he seems suddenly to have established himself as a highly accomplished portraitist, with studio, after his return from a two-year spell in Rome in 1786. Indeed, only two works are known, certainly, to have been painted before he left for Italy in 1784 (John Clerk, destroyed; and Lady in a Lace Cap, National Gallery of Scotland) – and yet on his arrival there he described himself as ‘Portrait Painter, Edinburgh’.

In both pose and handling, Thomas Wise is similar to William Kerr (The Marquis of Lothian; Raeburn, Scottish National Portrait Gallery 1997, no. 9). Both are remarkably contemplative portraits painted with great sensitivity, and differ from Raeburn’s later more dramatic compositions. Wise’s head, for example, is painted with a delicate and fluid smoothness that merely hints at the much bolder application (often with a square brush) that defines Raeburn’s later career. The precise delineation of light and shade that mark the sitter’s profile is not as nearly pronounced as in Raeburn’s later works, where he develops to the full his innovative technique of placing sitters in a single, strong, light source. And though this example does show the beginnings of the wet-in-wet application of paint – in the cravat and coat collar – that is so often seen in Raeburn’s later work, its simplicity perhaps betrays a hesitancy indicative of the artist’s albeit precocious approach. It is interesting to note, for example, that here Raeburn (though perhaps at the wish of his sitter) has not attempted to include either a landscape, or a more detailed composition with hands and elaborate costume, and as such this portrait has none of the occasional weaknesses in the positioning of hands and arms that can sometimes be seen in Raeburn’s early work. Instead, Wise’s head is off-set with a simple halo of dark and light brown pigments, which assume an added texture (especially on the left of the painting) from the ‘twill’ canvas that Raeburn habitually used. The result is more akin to the studies in chiaroscuro by Wright of Derby, whose own half-length portraits also emerge from plain and dark backgrounds with an almost magical intensity.

Thomas Wise is typical of the Scottish middle-classes whose collected industry helped create the British Empire. Born in Lunan, Forfarshire, the son of David Wise, he is recorded as a physician in Jamaica in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a time when the West Indies were the commercial heart of the Empire. As a result of the Island’s wealth and strategic importance, Jamaica’s inhabitants found themselves at the centre of the almost continuous global warfare in which Britain was then engaged, be it with France, Spain, Holland, or rebellious Americans – and even, at one point, all four at once. Wise’s contemporaries on the Island would almost certainly have included Horatio Nelson (when Governor of Fort Charles) and John Wolcot, otherwise known as the poet ‘Peter Pindar’. However, Jamaica’s prosperity – and thus Wise’s – was entirely dependent on the thousands of slaves who, under unimaginable conditions, were forced to grow the sugar cane on which the island’s wealth depended. But though Wise owned an estate in Jamaica, (Claremont) and on his return to Scotland bought Hillbank in Forfarshire, it is unlikely he was a plantation owner. His wealth did not match the enormous sums made by the ‘planters’, and on his return to Scotland Wise’s only concession to the social elevation so earnestly sought by returning planters was to register a coat of arms in 1807. Furthermore, his children (by Anne, daughter of Willam Chalmers of Glenericht, m. 1795) carried on in much the same vein as he had done; Patrick became a magistrate in Bengal, while Thomas, also a physician (first practicing in the East India Company) became the celebrated antiquarian and polymath whose collection of antiquities forms a major part of the collection of Dundee City Museums, and who added to his fathers art collection with works by Poussin, Claude Lorraine, Turner and Constable.
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